A friend has asked me to inquire as to whether or not the Church has ever spoken clearly regarding what has become almost an obsession today, that is, tattoos, of all kinds and sizes and themes, on their bodies, particularly by teenagers.
Her daughter's friend has gotten a huge one on her back, with a so-called Christian theme, no less, and she wondered if it was ok to do that. Her mother's immediate response, of course, if it was on her back, who would see it except when she went swimming!
This is a very troubling 'fad' today, and I also really want to know what the Church may have pronounced about it.
Can you direct me to a source of information about this subject?
Thank you. God bless you.
Fr. Stephen Somerville responds:
When your question on the subject of tattoos was proposed to me by the editor of the TIA website, it came to my mind that there is a certain similarity between the effect of tattoos on the body of a person and the effects of the Sacraments on the soul of a Catholic.
The Holy Catholic Church, extension of Jesus Christ in time and space, invites men to Baptism and Confirmation, Sacraments that confer an indelible permanent mark, called by theologians a “character,” on the soul of the believer. Tattooing confers likewise an indelible mark on the body of a person. That mark may be offensive to Christ.
The tattoo is on the body, but may well influence the soul. St. Paul tells us: “Know you not, that your (bodily) members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own (property)? For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Such is the Christian. Surely tattoo marks on the body are unseemly, if not actually offensive to God’s temple.
Is this opinion supported by Scriptures? Was tattooing an issue before Christ came to call and incorporate and spiritually mark His followers? Yes, it was.
From ancient times, pagan peoples would gash their bodies when mourning a deceased person or honoring a pagan god. We recall the false prophets of Baal on the one hand, and Elias, prophet of the true God. Elias challenged them to bring down fire from Heaven upon their altar of sacrifice, and they responded with hours of chanting, leaping and “cutting themselves after their manner with knives” (3 Kings 18:28). But no fire came until Elias alone called it down from the true God of Israel (v. 38).
We are not astonished to see that Moses, God’s great lawmaker, had legislated long before: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, neither shall you make on yourselves any figures or marks. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28). So, Moses forbade the Israelites not only to cut themselves, but also to make upon their bodies figures or marks. Here the practice of tattooing is clearly ruled out. This prohibition would help save the Israelites from imitating the false and depraved customs of their pagan neighbors.
Pope Pius XII, speaking in 1945 to sporting enthusiasts and athletes, noted their care for the body. Now this care can become a cult, that is, a false worship of the self if the athlete is an atheist and materialist, worshipping the perfect body of flesh. But the Catholic sees the human body as created by God to be the last and highest of all visible things, as God’s masterpiece, made “in the image and likeness of God” with its spiritual soul informing it. This human body should not be disfigured.
The Jews were commanded by God to make only one cutting mark, which was the circumcision for male infants, a symbol of cutting away sin. For the Catholic infant (or adult) at Baptism, the important mark is the sign of the Cross, with holy oil and the thumb of the priest, on forehead, breast and back. St. Paul wrote: “I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body” (Gal 6:17). Before and after praying, we regularly mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross.
Is, then, the mark of tattooing lawful for the Catholic? Not wishing to exaggerate what may be a small matter, I judge that I speak with the mind of the Church when I say that tattooing is at least unseemly for a Catholic. It surely could weaken Faith in Christ for one to place a non-Christ permanent mark on his body. Our body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, says St. Paul. Let that temple be preserved from unworthy marks.
In Christ Jesus,
Fr. Stephen Somerville